The Brahms Sonatas, Op. 120 for Viola and their Textual Challenges
Few works entered as quickly into the violist's literature or have come to occupy as central a position in that repertory as the Two Sonatas, Op. 120 by Johannes Brahms. These compositions were being performed frequently within a few years of their publication and are among the earliest recordings of viola works. To this day, they remain two of the most popular pieces for this noble instrument.
Perhaps as a consequence of its love for this glorious music, the community of violists and teachers usually reacts with consternation when confronted with the true history of the publication and execution of these sonatas. In fact, with the notable historical exceptions of William Primrose and Bruno Giuranna, it seems that most violists to this day prefer to trust dubious publications rather than confront the facts as we now know them. It is the purpose of this paper to present these facts in a useful fashion for those who are interested. It is my hope that we may, someday in the future, hear more performances of these works based upon the critical analysis of available texts rather than upon habit or blind faith in so-called "Urtext" editions.
Prior to publication
The events leading up to the publication of these sonatas are interesting in and of themselves.
Brahms originally composed the Two Sonatas, Op. 120 for his clarinettist friend Richard Mühlfeld of Meiningen, to whom he had previously dedicated the Clarinet Trio and Clarinet Quintet. After finishing the two sonatas, Brahms was requested by the publisher Simrock to create a version for viola and piano.
On October 14, 1894 Brahms wrote to violinist Joseph Joachim, asking whether they could meet in Frankfurt in the first half of Winter. Brahms mentioned that he would try to bring Mühlfeld and possibly a viola part for them to perform for Clara Schumann. Yet Brahms wrote again just 3 days later, stating "I hope that Mühlfeld can come - as I fear I find these two works quite awkward and unpleasant as viola sonatas." This was before he had even created a version for viola!
There is evidence that Brahms sent Simrock a viola part in February or March of 1895, although no such manuscript is known to exist today. It appears that Brahms had little time or interest in this transcription. Indeed, as the publication date, June 1895 (the version for violin was published in July 1895), was approaching, he still had not completed the task. Brahms did, nonethelessand perhaps out of friendship to Joachimfind time to produce versions for violin and piano which featured not only a complete violin part, but also a substantially revised piano part.
At this point a note about Brahms’ techniques of transcription is in order. In the case of the transcriptions for violin of these sonatas, when a change of register (octave) in the violin part was called for, he also adjusted the piano part accordingly, frequently correcting resulting voice-leading problems. This approach can be observed throughout Brahms’ frequent efforts to transcribe his own music. An alternative approach can be observed in his transcription of the clarinet parts of the Trio Op. 114 and Quintet Op. 115 for Viola. In these cases, he left all the parts as they had been, essentially calling the clarinet part a viola part. He changed no registers and made no other substantial changes. Thus, it appears Brahms’ transcription methods numbered two: adjust all changes in register and correct for voice leading, or adjust nothing at all. And therein lies the first reason to be suspicious of the published version of Op. 120 for viola and piano: the viola part is full of alterations, but no adjustments were made in the piano part.
The conditions leading up to publication of Op. 120 were also unusual. As mentioned, Brahms had not contributed a viola version of the sonatas and the deadline for publication was looming. The publisher, having protested as much as he could, appointed his own staff to produce the transcription. This resulted in the part, evidently prepared by William Kupfer for Simrock. This is the part which can be viewed today in the Brahms Archive in Hamburg, and in which Brahms made some hasty minor corrections before its publication. In further contrast to Brahms’ standard practise, there is no signed viola part from Brahms himself, a fact that should have disturbed publishers and violists alike. I would, however differ with some other opinions on this subject. The copyist’s part (ie. the print-ready part prepared by the publisher) in Hamburg was carefully and conscientiously done. It contains some scrivenor’s mistakes and some mistakes in judgement as well, but is, on the whole, quite clean. Brahms corrections, on the other hand, are amongst the sloppiest I have witnessed. From their appearance, it seems unlikely that he spent more than one hour proofreading the two sonatas. He did correct some errors, but missed others and created additional ones himself. In his manuscripts of the clarinet and violin versions, his work was substantially more careful and exact. Kupfer’s part, hastily corrected by Brahms, remains the principle source for the first and most subsequent editions, including those called “Urtext”.
It is clear at this point that there is no indication that the version for Viola of these sonatas derives from Brahms himself. He had not approved this version for Viola, and the alterations in the subsequent published version for Viola are atypical of Brahms.
There are several aspects related to textual decisions in these sonatas which I will not cover extensively. Matters of taste, as well personal listening and performing habits are best left to the readers to evaluate for themselves. The question of which register sounds best on a specific viola in the hands of a specific performer is also a subjective one best left to others. I have frequently observed experienced performers, when playing alone, to assert that the lower octave sounds better, while reversing their decision, when playing in a large hall with a grand piano.
The question of technical feasibility will also be avoided. While it is clear that Simrock had hoped to sell music to Hausmusiker and hobby violists, and although Brahms was clearly pressured into approving this transcription, there is no way to know why, in each individual case, Brahms accepted particular changes to his musical text. It is clear that an amateur violist in 1895, using a raw gut A-string would have had encountered difficulties unfamiliar to a modern violist with modern technique and strings. One paradoalso remains: why did Brahms not change, in this case, the viola parts in the Trio and Quintet? I leave the reader to resolve this mystery with a few passages for the viola from the Clarinet Trio, approved by Brahms and certainly not less difficult than those in our sonatas.
I will, therefore, deal with 4 criteria which are more objective, namely:
The viola range surpasses that of the clarinet by two notes (C3 and C3-sharp). There are just three moments where this might have played a role.
There are several examples of idiomatic writing which might speak for one version or another. Double stops and chords certainly fall under this category, being idiomatic for the viola and impossible on the clarinet. These passages, many with chords and double-stops from Brahms himself, are duly noted in AppendiIV.
Not to be excluded are two further deliberations, on which I will elaborate later. I would suggest that any aspiring performer of these sonatas visit the Brahms Archive in Hamburg; examine the clarinet, piano and violin parts, as well as other works of Brahms; and reach his or her own conclusions. Such curiosity and minor investment of time have never yet harmed a performance.
It can be presumed that any scholar familiar with Brahms’ symphonies and chamber music will be familiar with his approach to voice-leading. Therefore, I will point out just a few examples of passages where, in the first and “Urtext“ editions, Brahms original voice-leading has obviously been violated. This presentation is by no means comprehensive, but rather presents a small selection of passages with the original voice-leading indicated. (A comprehensive list of editing issues follows in AppendiIII.)
Op. 120/1, 1., mm. 25 - 30
This example, upon examination, demonstrates that the final note of the clarinet arpeggio (mm. 29 & 30) always coincides with the piano’s final quarter note. This is true in mm. 34 and 35. The adjusted viola part misses the mark each time. Why then should the viola not reproduce the original clarinet part?
Op. 120/1, 1st mov’t, mm. 122 125
Is not the rising line created by these interjections not only more logical but also more exciting in the clarinet version? And doesn’t the imitation in m. 125 then make more sense?
Op. 120/1, 1st mov’t, mm. 139 & 141
Op. 120/1, 1st mov’t, mm.184-188
Op. 120/1, 1st mov´t, mm. 187-201
As indicated in the original, the clarinet doubles and connects the piano line in these bars. The later version for the viola does not fulfil this function. If the viola is an octave lower, a thematic element is lost (compare G5 C6 B-flat5 A-flat5 with the very first bar of this movement).
For the nonbelievers, those who have not discovered the motivic integrity and remarkable compactness of the thematic material in these sonatas, I will illuminate one of the many wonders of these compositions. As you can see, the first theme of the f-minor sonata is practically identical with the theme of the last movement of the E-flat sonata.
Op. 120/1, 1st mov’t, mm. 213-220
Op. 120/2, 1st mov’t, mm.18-21
Op. 120/2, 1st mov’t, mm.38-40
Is the voice-leading of this passage not clear, when presented in this fashion?
Op. 120/2, 1st mov’t, m. 85.
Op. 120/2, 1st mov’t, m. 79 86
I believe, without wishing to press the point, that the following examples are clear without further explanation.
Having cast doubt upon the accuracy of the published versions of these sonatas, it is valuable to examine several examples and address the issue of melodic shape. No Brahms scholar needs to be reminded of the importance of intervals in Brahms’ melodic writing. Falling thirds are not interchangeable with rising sixths (Piano Quartet, Op. 60 in a minor, 2nd movement). Nor are fourths and fifths interchangeable in their inversion (Double Concerto, second movement). Few composers dedicated such attention to these aspects of intervallic integrity and melodic shape as Brahms.
It is illuminating to examine several passages of the viola sonatas in this light.
Certainly, when considering melodic shape, any comment about the presumed equivalence of these examples is quickly rendered superfluous.
Already some 70 years ago William Primrose had begun to question the accuracy of the musical texts in question. Bruno Giuranna continued this work and several others have continued to do so. At this time, a major publisher of a so-called Urtext-Edition has even expressed interest in publishing a viola part, based on the original clarinet part, in order to correct previous misunderstandings. This progress would certainly be most welcome. The responsibility lies, however at this moment, with the performers and teachers, who now finally have a chance to evaluate the facts and can, each in their own way, arrive at an edition of these works which respects the parameters of the music. In AppendiIII, each and every variation from the original clarinet part, be it the publisher’s version, Brahms’ corrections, be it the first edition and the “Urtext” are carefully documented. Perhaps with this work, the public can, at some point in the future, have some assurance of hearing these works as Brahms might have intended them to be performed.
Appendix I. Timeline
Appendix II: Sources
Appendix III: Catalogue
A catalogue of the textual alterations regarding the viola part
Sonata Op. 120/1 in f-minor
Andante un poco Adagio
Neither Brahms nor the copyist made any alterations in this movement. Brahms did, however eliminate the mistaken slurs in mm. 65 and 66.
Sonata, Op. 120/2
Andante con moto
Appendix IV: Idiomatic alterations
Copyright: James Creitz, 2003